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Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Has the world’s most critical asset market been damaged?

In 1790, America’s finances were at a breaking point. Debt servicing costs were higher than revenues, and government bonds were trading at a mere 20 cents on the dollar. Alexander Hamilton, the visionary first treasury secretary, recognized the need for a deep and liquid market for safe government debt. His approach was simple yet bold: to honor all debts, including those of states, and offer to swap old debt for new bonds with a lower interest rate. This triggered some controversy. After all, shouldn’t speculators who picked up cheap debt be paid less? Hamilton, however, stood steadfast, understanding the importance of maintaining investor confidence.

Fast forward over two centuries, and America’s leaders seem to be neglecting Hamilton’s fundamental principles. The nation finds itself on the brink of a technical default due to debt-ceiling brinkmanship. Furthermore, incontinent spending and rising interest rates have caused the national debt to nearly double in the last decade, now totaling a whopping $26.6 trillion. This all amounts to 96% of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP). With servicing costs making up a fifth of government spending, the strain on the market is palpable.

The American government bond market, the cornerstone of global finance, has recently been experiencing volatility and liquidity concerns. Regulators have been alarmed by the increasing presence of leveraged hedge funds in the Treasury market – a concern further exacerbated by the memory of the market’s malfunctioning in previous years. This includes an unsettling “flash crash” in 2014 and disruption in 2020 due to a cyberattack.

To address these issues, regulators and politicians have proposed various measures. The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), for example, is considering implementing rules to overhaul the treasury trading system. The most controversial of these proposals is mandating central clearing, which would make market positions transparent and eliminate bilateral counterparty risks.

Despite these plans, there have been fierce disputes about the extent and causes of problems in the Treasury market and the lengths regulators should go to repair them. Critics argue that these changes will needlessly increase costs for the Treasury. The debate rages on as the SEC, the Treasury, and market participants continue their discussions.

It’s important to recognize that the Treasury market touches every financial institution, from banks and broker dealers to pension funds and hedge funds. This market’s potential vulnerabilities are evident at every link in the chain.

The Treasury market is at a crucial juncture, teetering on the edge of uncertainty. In order to maintain the stability and reliability of this market, American officials must navigate this delicate balancing act judiciously. And like Hamilton, they must bear in mind the lessons of history, ensuring that investor confidence remains a priority.

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